There is only one way to cook fried squash — burn it to a crisp. Anything less and it is mushy, insubstantial and gross. Of course, once you burn it to a crisp, it’s still not worth eating. You might as well scrape the soot out of your fireplace and eat that. Critical literary theories and fried squash share something in common. With both, you have to choose between mealy-mouthed mush or overdone carcinogenic rubbish.
English scholars employ “critical literary theories” to interpret literature because they never learned, or don’t want to remember, how to read. The adjective “critical” in this phrase is supposed to mean “analytical,” like a movie critic who dissects a movie and evaluates the story line, cinematography and performances. When I teach literary analysis to community college students, I tell them that a literary theory is “a question” that you ask a text to answer.
There are lots of theories out there. The most common ones in our universities are marxist, feminist, masculinist (yes, the boys want their day in the spotlight too), queer (their choice to call it that, not mine), eco- or environmentalist, animalist, and so on. Ethnic studies, whether black, hispanic, asian, american indian or what have you often show up as well. There are lots of variations among these approaches, and there are a few more, such as “new historicist,” that we could add to the list.
You can see that the dominant concerns are gender, race, power-politics, and the environment. Now, where do those priorities come from? NPR? The Academy Awards? They seem to be ubiquitous. Thirty or forty years ago the list looked a bit different, with a greater interest in linguistic questions.
I could keep going with what I think is the fascinating history of how literature has been interpreted over the centuries. We could go all the way back to the three- and four-fold methods of the church fathers, or the eschatologically driven interpretations of the Qumran community. But let’s get back to the present.
I said earlier that a theory asks a question of a piece of literature. Marxists ask, “how are power and class inequalities represented in this text?” Feminists ask, “how are women and their ability to exercise power portrayed in this text?” Environmentalists ask, “how is the environment and its use/abuse by people represented in this text?” More important than these questions, though, are the assumptions behind them. If the critic assumes a Marxist or a feminist worldview, the answer to the question she asks will come out Marxist or feminist. You don’t put squash in the frying pan and end up with filet mignon.
What I find so vacuous and banal about contemporary literary theories are two things. First, they are designed for and used in service to a far-left political agenda. The upshot is that traditional western literature is itself the product and instrument of the oppression of the disenfranchised, all in the name of enriching and empowering white guys, and….yaaawwwn….sadly, that’s the best the brilliant scholars in university English departments can do — just regurgitate Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton. Of course, professors use bigger words, but burnt squash is no better than mushy squash.
Second, this type of literary interpretation is activist rather than artistic or intellectual. There is no critical thinking allowed because the assumptions are sacrosanct. By the time the caboose rolls by the engine has already left the station and you are not allowed to question the engineer.
The liability of the contemporary approach is best understood by pointing out a similarity between literary critics and the Apostle Paul.
Wait — what?
How is a progressive literary critic similar to the apostle Paul?
It’s simple. They are both ideological fundamentalists. They both know what is true before they even read the text. Their respective interpretations are confirmations and demonstrations of foregone conclusions. The literary critic and the Apostle Paul do not interpret so much as they proclaim. The assumption is not that there is something new to discover, only that there is a new way to talk about something the interpreter already believes is true. So, for all of its proto-feminist impulses, the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” resolves itself into a perpetuation of the patriarchal status quo. And so it goes.
Contemporary literary theories contain a “you end up where you started” reflex that confines literature and starves it of its inherent transformative power. Now, we could point out that if you start with ribeye, you end up with a pretty good meal. But if you start with squash, you end up with squash, no matter how you cook it. You can’t improve on yuck.
In my next post I will explain my approach to literary interpretation.